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One Girl, Two Mothers

July 14, 2009 permalink

Two different parents are claiming the same girl, now living in Hamilton Ontario. Mother Carol Ann Cozzi says the girl is her daughter Brianna born in Islip New York in October 2002. But the state of Texas claims she is their ward Bejohna Peres born in October 2003. The mother has her daughter's birth certificate, and she does not look like a skilled document forger. Hamilton CAS has seized the girl, and the two child protectors are now squabbling over rights. Do you think a judge will order the girl cut in half, to see which claimant chickens first?



A case of mistaken identity: mother

Carol Ann Cozzi
Carol Ann Cozzi
Kaz Novak, the Hamilton Spectator
Bejohna Peres
Bejohna Peres

Daniel Nolan, SPECIAL TO The Hamilton Spectator, (Jul 11, 2009)

A woman says authorities have made a terrible case of mistaken identity by confusing her daughter with a young girl missing from Texas.

Carol Ann Cozzi, 40, says she came to Hamilton last month from the United States, looking for a computer job and a new life for her and her daughter, Brianna, after she failed to find a well paid job in Houston.

Instead, she says, she's losing sleep, hardly eating, talking to the FBI, lawyers, police and the U.S. Embassy after her daughter was taken from her Thursday afternoon because authorities believe she is Bejohna Peres, who has been missing from Houston, Texas, since May 2007

"I don't understand how this can happen," Cozzi said last night at the east Mountain townhouse of friend Diana Wolf, where she has been staying since coming to Hamilton.

"This is a nightmare. It's not real. I don't know when I'm going to see her again. I'm a law-abiding person. How can this happen?"

The Children's Aid Society of Hamilton is investigating. Police called the CAS after being informed that Bejohna, 5, was reported to be in Hamilton by the Virginia-based National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The centre has a picture and details about Bejohna on its website.

"We're in the midst of investigating that," CAS executive director Dominic Verticchio said. "We're working with the officials down in Houston, Texas, and there's a lot of similarities. We haven't quite confirmed the fact if it is the same child, but we need to confirm this with the folks down in Texas. There's too many similarities that it causes us a great deal of concern, both for us and the Texas child protection authorities."

He said the CAS hopes to conclude its investigation by the first part of next week. A court order exists to have Bejohna returned to Texas.

Cozzi, who says she's been offered a job in Caledonia, said she showed authorities Brianna's New York State birth certificate when they showed up to inquire about her identity at the townhouse complex. The green piece of paper indicates her daughter was born Brianna Michelle Cozzi on Oct. 20, 2002 at 2:18 p.m. in Islip, N.Y. It says her mother is Carolann (sic) Cozzi and that it was filed Nov. 20, 2002. No father is listed because Cozzi says the last time she spoke to him was the day she told him she was pregnant with Brianna.

Bejohna, who the center and Houston police say may be in the company of her mother, was born Oct. 24, 2003. Bejohna, a ward of the State of Texas, has been missing since May 2, 2007.

Police have taken a DNA sample from Brianna to compare it with one of Bejohna in Houston, but Cozzi said she's been told it won't get to Texas until Monday. She says she's also allowed police to fingerprint her to compare with prints of the mother. She says she was only able to see her daughter for one hour yesterday and no arrangements have been made for her to see her on the weekend. She says, however, Brianna is holding up well.

"She seems like she's doing OK, but she wanted to come home," Cozzi said. "I had to tell her this was an adventure. She got a really cool ride in a police car, but she didn't know she'd be away for the weekend."

According to Cozzi, she worked at a computer networking job in North Babylon, Long Island, for 11 years, but lost her job last year. She said a friend recommended she come look for a job in Houston, so she and Brianna went to Texas in August 2008. They lived there for about nine months and then came to Hamilton on the advice of Wolf, just stopping in Manhattan for a few hours on the way.

She says she was not in Texas in May 2007 and that she has given authorities the name of the school that Brianna was going to at that time -- the Marion G. Vedder Elementary School in North Babylon, N.Y. She's urged authorities to call the school to verify her information.

Wolf, who got to know Cozzi and her daughter over the Internet a couple of years ago, doesn't doubt her friend's sincerity. She calls what happened "ridiculous" and "scary."

"There is nothing that doesn't fit," said Wolf, who works for a Mississauga computer firm. "I knew them in New York and I knew them in Texas.

"Everything fits.", 905-526-3351

Source: Hamilton Spectator

Addendum: This article, almost certainly about the same case, says that the judge made the rare decision to return the girl to her mother at the first court hearing.



Judge returns girl to woman

Evidence 'incomplete,' he tells CAS

Susan Clairmont, The Hamilton Spectator, (Jul 15, 2009)

A judge has ordered the Children's Aid Society of Hamilton to return a little girl to her "mom" while DNA tests determine if she is a girl abducted from the United States.

Justice Donald Gordon wasted no time in making his decision yesterday in his family law courtroom.

"The evidence is lacking. It's incomplete," he said, chastising the CAS for apprehending the six-year-old girl without adequate proof she is the missing U.S. child.

Court documents show the international investigation was sparked by a neighbour in Hamilton who wishes to remain anonymous. Gordon said that makes the information "hearsay," and he is not willing to accept it as evidence.

Lawyers Ian Corneil and Victoria Loh, acting on behalf of the woman and girl, didn't even get a chance to make their case to the judge.

The matter was before Gordon because the CAS must appear before a judge within five days of seizing a child. The CAS asked that the child remain in care.

The 'mom' burst into tears when Gordon said the child would be home last night.

"I'm going to make vanilla pudding for my baby," she said outside the courtroom a few minutes later.

None of the lawyers in the courtroom -- even one who was there just to watch the highly unusual case unfold -- expected the judge to order the child be returned immediately. For a judge to make an order like that on the very first court appearance after an apprehension is extremely rare. Everyone, including the 'mom', was prepared for the CAS to keep the child for two more weeks -- the length of time it will take to compare the DNA of the girl in Hamilton to DNA on file for the missing girl.

Also last night, DNA swabs were to be taken of the woman and girl and sent to a Hamilton-area lab to determine if they are indeed mother and daughter. Those results should be ready Friday.

But that will still not solve the mystery. The child abducted in the United States is believed to be with her mother, who lost custody but ran off with her daughter two years ago before child protection agencies could take her.

I cannot identify the woman or the child, due to a publication ban. The ban is opposed by the woman who wants the public to know the whole story of what she and the girl have been through.

They arrived in Hamilton recently from the U.S. and are American citizens.

In court, the CAS said the girl allegedly told a neighbour things that match up with a missing child case detailed on many American-based websites. The girl supposedly said she used to have a different name -- the same name as the missing girl.

"They don't call me that anymore," she was quoted as saying.

The child allegedly listed the U.S. cities she once lived in which matched up with the abducted girl. She apparently gave the name of a woman who used to cut her hair and the name is the same as that of the missing girl's grandmother.

The social security numbers provided by the woman "are being investigated by U.S. authorities," said the CAS lawyer.

The CAS also cited the fact the woman did not cry when the girl was taken into custody and Hamilton police said the child seemed "rehearsed" in her responses to their questions.

Court heard the woman in Hamilton agreed to be fingerprinted to compare with prints on file in the U.S. from the missing child's mother.

The prints did not match.

However, the CAS argued yesterday the American prints may not really have been taken from the abducted girl's mother and therefore prove nothing.

Federal and local police and child protection agencies in the U.S. and Canada have been trying to sort through pieces of identification, family photos and legal documents to determine who this child is. It appears the DNA comparisons due in two weeks are the key to everything.

In the meantime, the judge has ordered some conditions: the woman and child cannot move away and must allow unscheduled visits by social workers.

Despite all this, the woman says she still intends to make Hamilton her permanent home.

"I left the U.S. to come here because I thought it would be a safe place to raise my daughter."

Susan Clairmont's commentary appears regularly in The Spectator., 905-526-3539

Source: Hamilton Spectator

Addendum: The DNA test proves the connection between mother and daughter. Don't expect an apology from Dominic Verticchio for separating mother and daughter for five days, or holding up mother's job offer.



Mystery girl's DNA closes case for agency

Susan Clairmont, The Hamilton Spectator, (Jul 18, 2009)

They are mother and daughter. DNA proves it.

With that, the Children's Aid Society of Hamilton is closing its case on the girl it seized from her mom after a tip she might be a child abducted from the southern U.S. The girl spent five days in a foster home.

Serotech Laboratories Ltd. in Burlington completed its comparison yesterday of cheek swabs from the girl and woman in Hamilton. The results show they are mother and daughter.

The CAS now says it is satisfied the girl in Hamilton is not the girl abducted -- possibly by her own mother -- two years ago in the U.S.

"Our investigation has come to an end," says CAS Hamilton executive director Dominic Verticchio. "There should be no more need for our involvement."

The results came one week after a fingerprint comparison showed the woman in Hamilton is not the same person who is the mother of the missing American girl. Still, a CAS lawyer questioned that conclusion in court this week. The lawyer presented no evidence to back this up, but suggested the fingerprints on file in the southern U.S. may not really belong to the abducted child's mom.

The final -- and most definitive -- test is still being done. DNA from the Hamilton girl is being compared with filed DNA from the abducted child. Those results are expected by the end of the month.

Even though the mother knew all along what yesterday's results would be, she was still elated.

"You are a god amongst men," she told the lab employee who delivered the news. "Now, I have the proof in writing that a court will accept."

A publication ban does not allow me to tell you who the mother or daughter are. Even though the mother wishes to be publicly identified. And even though the child is no longer in CAS care and no wrongdoing has been found.

The six-year-old American girl and her mom came to Hamilton a month ago to stay with a friend with the possibility of moving here permanently. It is their first time in Canada.

On July 9, the child was apprehended by the CAS and placed in care after a neighbour -- whose identity has been protected by the CAS -- claimed he overheard the child call herself by a name different from the one she is known by. The neighbour did his own online sleuthing and came to believe the girl may be a child shown on many websites featuring images of missing kids. He then phoned police in the U.S.

Police and child protection authorities on both sides of the border struggled to determine if the pair in Hamilton were really who they claimed to be. Documents handed over by the woman didn't satisfy many of the authorities, who suggested they might be forgeries.

On Tuesday, the case went before a judge in Hamilton's family court. He ordered the girl be immediately returned to the woman we now know is her mother. The judge cited "hearsay" and lack of evidence for his decision.

The CAS says it understands the "pain and frustration that the mom must have experienced" when her daughter was apprehended. But the agency was just following its mandate, Verticchio says.

The missing child is a ward of the state she was abducted from, he says, and "there were too many similarities" for the CAS to dismiss the possibility this was her. Therefore, it was the CAS's legal obligation to take her into care until her identity could be established.

Verifying the mother's documents was difficult, Verticchio says. The child's birth certificate was a photocopy with no official seal. The mother and daughter had no passports.

"If she had a passport, it would have been over on Day 1," he says.

"We sent documents to the U.S. Consulate and they weren't being definitive to us whether they were real or not."

Other parents might read of this situation and worry they could find themselves trying to prove their children are really theirs.

"Can this happen to any of us? The answer is absolutely not," Verticchio says. Most parents have a wealth of birth, medical, dental and school records related to their child, he says.

Ian Corneil, lawyer for the mom, sees it differently.

"I don't think there's anything she could have done differently," he says. "It's kind of terrifying, actually ... that the CAS could take her child away based on some neighbour's anonymous allegation."

The mom herself is remarkably diplomatic. Even though her daughter was taken away, neighbours are gossiping about her and an employer who she says was about to offer her a job is now holding off until the final DNA results.

For the most part, she loves Hamilton. And still wants to live here. She says she would like to make peace with the whistle-blowing neighbour. And of the CAS, she says, "Their motivation was good but it does not mean they have perfect judgment."

Most of her contempt is aimed at the American embassy, which, she says, never gave her the benefit of the doubt.

While things seem to be looking up for the mom and daughter, there is no happy ending to this story.

There is, after all, still a little girl who is missing.

Susan Clairmont's commentary appears regularly in The Spectator., 905-526-3539

Source: Hamilton Spectator